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Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) - Capriccio Espagnol

A kaleidoscope is an instrument comprising mirrors enclosing bits of coloured glass which produces, by the simplest of means, the most marvellously coloured patterns - a close analogy to Rimsky-Korsakov, except that anyone can work a kaleidoscope. Rimsky-Korsakov's skill for shaking up orchestral instruments is arguably still unique. 

It wasn't always so. Originally a Naval Officer, perhaps explaining his taste for the exotic, he started composing as an untrained amateur. In 1867, his “ultra-modernism”(?) earned him the Professorship of Practical Composition at St. Petersburg Conservatoire. But, as he said, he “couldn't harmonise a chorale, had never done any exercises in counterpoint, had no idea of strict fugue, and moreover couldn't name the chords and intervals.” His knowledge of instrumental techniques was scant (and obsolete!). He coped by teaching himself one step ahead of his students, thereby becoming at once a great teacher and a model pupil. 

It must have been Sadko, A Musical Picture Op. 5, a disgracefully neglected masterpiece of orchestral inventiveness, that prompted this crucial recognition, setting him on a course (N.B. Naval metaphor!) which led in 1887 to the Capriccio Espagnol, that most famous of ersatz-Spanish music (indeed, many find it more idiomatic than Falla). You could just relax and bathe in Rimsky's intoxicating brew (I usually do!). Otherwise, read on: 

The brief Alborada, or “morning dance”, bursts out fit to wake the dead, never mind the sleeping, alternating two lushly-scored fortissimi with two much sparer renditions, the second melting away into silence. 

The set of Variazioni on a gorgeously romantic tune form a beautiful if relatively conventional interlude. 

The Alborada returns dressed in new clothes, principally the staggeringly simple device of more or less swapping the roles of the solo clarinet and violin. A sudden crescendo heralds ... 

Scena e Canto Gitano: balancing the Variazioni, the Scene is a group of largely cadential variations, each solo cadenza sporting a different percussion halo, on the theme of the subsequent Gypsy Song

Mid-flight (about where Dean drags Torville like a matador's cape!), the Fandango stamps in emphatically, triggering an astonishing sequence where Rimsky repeatedly establishes one sonority, then overlays it with another in a veritable counterpoint of colour. The Gypsy Song makes a brief reappearance just before the coda, the Alborada resurging in a dizzying whirl, whose dull cadence might spark a small pang of disappointment, if we weren't too dizzy to notice.

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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